Eventually people will connect to the Internet via a high-speed digital phone line or a cable modem. But don't hold your breath. Most people don't live or work in communities served by cable modems yet, and digital lines such as DSL service are still too pricey for most consumers.
So most users are stuck with using a standard analog or "POTS" (plain old telephone service) modem. Modem speed has improved over the years, but so far the fastest anyone has been able to send data up a phone line is at 33.6 kilobits per second (kbps).
But a few years ago, US Robotics (now 3Com) and Rockwell each came up with a way to boost the download speed to nearly 56kbps by compressing the data at the service provider's end and decompressing it at the user's end. So-called 56k modems theoretically doubled the speed at which you could download data from an Internet service provider to your PC but had no impact on the speed of uploading data from your PC to the provider. In reality, 56k modems typically download at between 40 and 48k, depending on the quality of the phone connection.
Still, the increased download speed makes a difference, especially when visiting graphics-laden Web pages or downloading large audio or video files, which are becoming omnipresent on the Internet.
The trouble with the Rockwell and 3Com standards were that they were incompatible with each other. A modem designed for 3Com's "X2" standard couldn't establish a high-speed connection with one designed for Rockwell's 56kflex standard. Service providers and modem makers joined one camp or the other and modem buyers, for about two years, were faced with a dilemma.
After a protracted battle between the two standards, both sides came together, and in February the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union approved the V.90 standard, which will allow the industry to settle on a single technology for 56k communications. The new standard was officially ratified by the ITU on Sept. 15.
What this means to consumers is that it's now safe to buy a 56k modem as long as it meets--or can be upgraded to meet--the new V.90 standard. If you already have a 56k or even a 33.6k modem, there is a good chance it can be upgraded to the new V.90 standard by downloading and running a "patch" from your modem maker's Web site. 3Com, for example, offers free patches to owners of its 56k Sportster internal and external modems. Owners of 28.8 or 33.6k Sportster modems purchased after Aug. 18, 1996, can purchase the upgrade software for $60. Diamond Multimedia (http://www.diamond.com) and other modem makers offer similar patches from their Web sites.
If your modem came with your PC, visit your PC maker's Web site or call its technical support department to see if an upgrade is available. Gateway, for example, now offers a free update patch for some models of its Telepath internal X2 modems. Compaq and other companies have similar programs.
The main advantage to V.90 modems is that there is now one standard so that customers and ISPs will no longer have to worry about what type of equipment to purchase. If you're already using a 56k modem with your service, there is no compelling reason to upgrade right away. You won't get an appreciable benefit from connecting the V.90 standard as long as you and your service provider are already in sync. What's more, there is a good chance that your service provider hasn't yet upgraded its service to V.90.
While no one has yet figured out a way to send more than 53k of data across a single standard phone line, a number of companies have developed systems that allow you to "bond" two or more phone lines to achieve download speeds of 112k or more, depending on the number of lines used.
Diamond Multimedia's SupraSonic II ($149), for example, is a single internal card with two V.90 56k modems. Bonding technology is a reasonably priced alternative to ISDN and other high-speed digital technologies. Using both modems will tie up two phone lines, but an extra line typically costs about $12 a month, which is generally cheaper than other alternatives. Netcom (http://www.netcom.com) is one of several Internet service providers that offer dual-line service. Netcom charges $29.99 a month for the service, which is $10, more than its regular service.
If you're buying a PC card modem for a notebook PC, pay attention to the way you connect it to the phone line. Some modems require you to carry a "dongle," which is an extra cable that you might loose or break. Others have an "x-jack," which pops out to accommodate a regular phone cord. They work OK, but sometimes the spring in the x-jack connector breaks, making it difficult to pop the connector back into the modem.
Xircom (http://www.xircom.com) now has a cleverly designed series of modems (called RealPort) that have regular phone cord connectors. Some models also have an Ethernet port for connecting the notebook PC to a LAN. My only complaint is that they're too thick for a single PC card slot so take the space of two devices. But they work great, and the one that I'm testing has proven reliable.
Larry Magid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."